Tag Archives: Blue Jay

Are There “No Birds Out There?” – A Day on a Christmas Bird Count as a Case Study.


It was a record year for Evening Grosbeaks in our CBC territory.

On Sunday, December 30th, Erin Walter joined me for the Freeport-Brunswick Christmas Bird Count (CBC). My annual territory covers most of Freeport west of I-295, with a small bite of Yarmouth, a sliver of Pownal, and a corner of Durham. It’s suburban and ex-urban, almost exclusively residential, and public open space is limited to Hedgehog Mountain Park and adjacent playing fields, Florida Lake Park, and Hidden Pond Preserve.

Like all of the CBCs I do, we walk…a lot. And this year was no exception. While the rest of the team abandoned me (the car was full just the day before!), Erin stuck with the deathmarch to its chilly end, and Jeannette (and Bonxie) covered the Hedgehog Mountain Park area in the early morning for us. With just a team of two for the day, Erin and I spent most of our time split up, dividing the length of roads we cover by walking mile stretches and leap-frogging each other with a car. Using that strategy, we cover a majority of the sector’s roads, and we cover it thoroughly: woodlots, fields, feeders, yards, etc, are all checked.

In the end, we walked up to 12 miles each, with a total of 17.5 miles covered by the two of us, and another 2 covered by Jeannette.  About 18 miles were covered by car. In other words, we spent most of the day outside, working each and every mixed-species foraging flock we encountered.

I have covered this sector for 13 of the past 14 years, and each year I have done it the same way. It’s nothing if not thorough as less than 8 hours of useable daylight can offer. Therefore, the 13 years of data provide an interesting little dataset, one that can be compared and dissected. That’s why I like to do this relatively unproductive (by coastal Maine standards) territory. And, this is why I am writing this blog today: because I think the consistency and standardization provides a way to contrast seasons more than just anecdotally.

With a cold – but not brutally so, it was -16F when we started last year! – and calm day, weather wouldn’t be a factor in limiting detections, so our count should be a little snapshot of “what’s going on out there.”  It’s a good way for me to collect data for my preconceived notions, or find out that I need to refute them. So what IS going on out there?

Total species were just below average for us, while total individuals were a little above average. Let’s try and break it down a bit.

After a very cold start to the winter, it’s been mostly above normal, and we’re down to just a patchy layer of icy snow. Some running fresh water is open, but most small ponds are still frozen. But our section has limited water, so waterbird numbers are uninspiring no matter what. The Cousin’s River Marsh west of the interstate was mostly frozen, and the little stretch of open water in the river was completely devoid of ducks. It’s a Sunday, so the Brunswick Landfill is closed, so we didn’t have the evening commute of gulls returning to roost on the bay to tally.

However, I know for a fact we cover the landbirds as exhaustively as anyone, and this is where the data gets interesting. Oak, beech, and White Pine nuts and seeds are virtually non-existent this year, as we all have been noticing. There’s not much spruce cone in our area either and very little Eastern Hemlock. Paper Birch and especially Yellow Birch, however, are in decent shape, as is Speckled Alder.  Ash seeds are in good supply.

With so little natural food resources overall, it was an extraordinary fall for bird feeding, augmented by the early cold and snow. Since then, however, it has felt like birds have “disappeared,” and many folks coming into the store are reporting slow feeding stations. Are there birds out there and just not coming to feeders? Or did everything move on? Or, is our perception simply wrong?  Erin and I wanted to find out.

As always, the answer differed between species. We had a record low for Blue Jays, more than 1/3 of average. Clearly, with the lack of acorns to cache, most of our Blue Jays simply moved on – those caches of Black Oil Sunflower seeds and peanuts they hoarded in the fall can only go so far. And we set a new record low for Rock Pigeons (0!) as they were all apparently at our store’s feeders outside our territory all day. And on some days of birding, you just don’t see a lot of raptors.

Woodpeckers were interesting. We were above average in Red-bellied (continuing their increasing trend in Maine) and Downy, but Hairys had their second highest tally – almost double average. They were also drumming more widely than usual for the end of the year; did that simply increase detection or are there more around this year, perhaps following a very good breeding season?

33 European Starlings was a new record high count for the territory. American Crows, Brown Creepers, Eastern Bluebirds, Northern Cardinals, and House Finches were all above average. The measly 5 American Tree Sparrows were a new record low, however, perhaps due to that early snowfall. Then again, Dark-eyed Juncos were well above average, so who knows?

Considering birch and alder are the only good tree seed crops around, we were not surprised to find an above-average number of American Goldfinches. Common Redpolls aren’t here yet, and the good numbers of Purple Finches and Pine Siskins from the fall have clearly moved on. However, the best winter for Evening Grosbeaks in at least 20 years continues – we had a new record high for the territory, with 2 in a yard on Hunter Road and 1 loner on Merrill Road in Freeport, and an impressive group of 26 on Webster Road, which Erin was able to extensively photograph.

But of most interest to me are the core members (joined by the woodpeckers and to a lesser extent some of the finches) of the mixed-species foraging flocks that travel our woods and pass through our yards. The “feeder birds and allies” if you will. The insect-eating Brown Creepers were above average, but Golden-crowned Kinglets were extremely low. I don’t have an explanation here, so I’ll concentrate on the seed-eating members of the flock.

We were interested to find that Black-capped Chickadees were just about average; they seemed low of late, making me wonder if they too moved further south this winter. Yet surprisingly, we had a new record high count for Tufted Titmice, more than doubling our 13-year average. Good breeding season, or do these resident birds not clear out when food resources are slim?  Both nuthatches were above average, but I was really surprised to find Red-breasted Nuthatches so common. I thought they too had continued on, but there was 1-2 with almost every flock we encountered.

But where we saw these birds was definitely telling. In an hour at Hedghog Mountain, Jeannette has all of 3 Black-capped Chickadees, 2 White-breasted Nuthatches, and 1 Red-breasted Nuthatch. Erin and I had absolutely nothing at Florida Lake Park.  Other stretches of mostly wooded habitat was very quiet. But in neighborhoods with well-stocked bird feeders? Lots of birds!  Although we didn’t necessarily see as many birds at feeders themselves as in and around yards that have them, I t’s clear that the supplemental food resources offered by people increases the number of birds in the area in winter. And on a relatively mild and benign day, they were mostly out feeding elsewhere – but we know where they’ll go as the pressure starts to drop this afternoon with the approaching storm.  And in contrast, while we had some goldfinches at feeders, we had most of them in birches and alders, even weedy areas –all natural food which is readily available at the moment, as opposed to many of the other tree crops.

So what does this all mean? Well, good question! And I don’t really know!  But clearly it’s not quite as “slow” out there as many bird watchers are reporting. While Evening Grosbeaks were rightly the star of the show today, I learned a lot about the current status of our “feeder birds.”  More questions and answers, as always, but I enjoyed the exercise of analyzing and postulating (i.e. pretending I am still a scientist). This small section of the state, on only one day, covered by only 2 people, can only tell us so much, but after 13 years of doing this essentially the same way, the numbers are easy to compare and contrast. And perhaps, after a handful of more years, we might even have a little fun with some trend analysis.

Until then, here’s our annotated checklist for the day (and yes, the taxonomy of my spreadsheet is woefully outdated). Averages are in parentheses.

Begin: 7:17am. 19F, mostly cloudy, very light NW.
End: 3:55pm. 23F (high of 25F), clear, calm.

Miles by foot: 17.5 + 2
Miles by car: 18.0

Total species (31.6): 29
Total individuals (903.5): 1017

Red-tailed Hawk (1.3): 1
Wild Turkey (11.2): 5
Herring Gull (24): 1 *record low
Rock Pigeon (25): 0 *record low.
Mourning Dove (50): 40
Red-bellied Woodpecker (.75): 3
Downy Woodpecker (17): 19
Hairy Woodpecker (12): 23 *2nd highest
Pileated Woodpecker (1.9): 1
Blue Jay (76.1): 21 *record low
American Crow (76): 103
Common Raven (2.6): 2
Black-capped Chickadee (307): 317
Tufted Titmouse (33): 72 *New Record
Red-breasted Nuthatch (17): 23
White-breasted Nuthatch (27): 37
Brown Creeper (3): 5
Golden-crowned Kinglet (11): 3
Eastern Bluebird (1): 4
European Starling (14.5): 33 *record high
American Tree Sparrow (23.2): 5 *record low
Song Sparrow (1.1): 2
White-throated Sparrow (0.6): 1
Dark-eyed Junco (28): 69
Northern Cardinal (11): 18
House Finch (8.4): 23
American Goldfinch (83): 119
EVENING GROSBEAK (2.4): 29 *record high
House Sparrow (13.8): 1 (was a lone House Sparrow the rarest bird of the day?)

To compare, check out my blog from late fall of 2017, entitled: “Why there are no Birds at Your Feeders Right Now,” for a completely different reason.

A Week on Mohegan with WINGS, 2016

monarch-9-24

Every other year, I have the pleasure of spending a week on Monhegan Island in the fall with a tour group for WINGS. Unlike my annual weekend tour through the store, this allows us to fully experience multiple changes in the weather and the resultant changes in bird numbers and diversity.

This year’s tour, which took place from September 19-25, recorded 116 species (including 5 seen only from the ferry or while we were on the mainland), including 18 species of warblers. Both tallies were a little low, as the weather was often simply “too nice” for much of the week, and fewer birds found themselves on the island. But as usual, great looks at a wide variety of common birds, spiced up by a smattering of rarities, made for a wondrous week of birding.

Birds from any direction are possible at this migrant trap, and this week, we experienced visitors from the south (e.g. Orchard Oriole), west (e.g. Lark and Clay-colored Sparrows), and even the east (Cory’s and Great Shearwaters). While the allure of a “Mega” kept us searching, local rarities kept us entertained. From Peregrine Falcons overhead to a Sora at our feet, you never quite know what’s around the next corner. Even the “slow” days offered new birds, as our relaxed and casual pace simply allowed us the opportunity to enjoy whatever happened to be in front of us. And the overall weather and food was unbeatable – adding to the mystique of this truly special place.
group-in-town-9-23

While daily turnover in the island’s birdlife is expected during the peak of fall migration, a shift in the weather can yield a distinct change in the birds we see. Several clear and calm nights allowed migration to continue unimpeded, while a northwesterly wind on the night of the 22nd yielded numerous birds overhead in the morning – including our first big push of Yellow-rumped, Palm, and Blackpoll Warblers. However, no fallouts – the stuff Monhegan birding legends are made of – occurred this week as unseasonably warm and relatively pleasant weather continued. It might not have produced massive numbers of birds, but it sure made for comfortable birding!

A couple of nights of southwesterlies produced dreams of vagrants, and likely resulted in the arrival of several “southern” birds such as Orchard Oriole, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. In contrast, by week’s end, the first White-crowned Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and other late-season migrants from the north began to appear.

“Drift migrants/vagrants” such as Lark Sparrows and Clay-colored Sparrows, along with a number of Dickcissels, all normally found further west, were present and accounted for as usual out here.
town-9-23
Lark and Clay-colored Sparrows

Two immature Yellow-crowned Night-Herons (perhaps part of a small scale northward irruption into the New England coast) stood guard in the early mornings at the Ice Pond.  Later in the week, the world’s most confiding Sora appeared, spending one afternoon foraging in the open at the pond’s muddy edges – this year’s drought had reduced it to a mere muddy puddle.
sora-blja-9-21
Sora and a Blue Jay

A Connecticut Warbler was one of our finds of the week, heard by all, seen by some on two occasions; an “exclusive” for our group. A late Olive-sided Flycatcher was another treat, as was the Black-billed Cuckoo that we caught up with thanks to the efforts (and game of charades) of friends – exemplifying the spirit of the Monhegan birding community shared by most.
bbcu-9-23

Calm winds and the season produced excellent seawatching conditions on the 21st, and from the high cliffs of White Head, we observed Cory’s Shearwaters (once a rarity this far north and east) and Great Shearwaters – with massive rafts of one or both just beyond the realm of identification– and a few Minke Whales. Always a highlight in the fall is the raptor passage, which most of the week was limited to numerous Merlins, scattered Sharp-shinned Hawks, and the occasional Peregrine Falcon, On our last day, a light northerly wind also ushered in a steady movement of Northern Harriers and Ospreys, along with another surge of falcons.

And then there was the food: exquisite fine dining at the Island Inn, the best pizza in Maine at the Novelty, and a candlelight lobster dinner – with lobsters brought in just for us! – at the rustic Trailing Yew, complete with a lobster ecology and human ecology lesson and step-by-step instructions. And that’s in addition to the limitless lobster scrambled eggs at breakfast every morning!

Highlights for our group each day were as follows, along with a brief synopsis of the overnight flight and the day’s weather.

9/19: Balmy Days ferry from Boothbay Harbor:
– 1 Long-tailed Duck (FOF; early)
– 1 Pomarine Jaeger (harassing Northern Gannet)
– 1 Cory’s Shearwater

Island:
– A few light showers, drizzle, and fog occasionally lifting on light and variable, and rather warm winds throughout the day. Calm and foggy at dusk.
– 1 female Orchard Oriole (new)
– 1 Lark Sparrow (continuing)
– 1 Clay-colored Sparrow (continuing)
– 1 Carolina Wren (continuing)
rbnu-9-24
Like everywhere in Maine this fall, Red-breasted Nuthatches were abundant.
ichneumon_wasp_edited
Ichneumon wasp sp on window screen.

9/20:
– Sunrise: 62F, dense fog, very light southeast. Light migration likely overnight, but hard to decipher on the radar due to fog.  Fog coming and going throughout the day, warm and humid, very light southeast.  Light south and fog at dusk.

Another relatively “slow” day, but these were the highlights:
– 1 CONNECTICUT WARBLER
– 2 juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Herons
– 1 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
– 1 Lark Sparrow
– 1 Clay-colored Sparrow
– 2 American Golden-Plovers
– 1 Cory’s Shearwater
– 1 Greater Shearwater
– 1 Carolina Wren

harbor-9-20
client-at-barnacle-9-20
I tell people never to leave their binoculars behind when on Monhegan; you never know what you will see where. They also can come in handy for reading the fine print of menus!
group-in-fog-9-20
lasp-9-20
Lark Sparrow

9/21:
– Am: 62F, mostly clear, calm. Light to moderate migration overnight on lt SW to W, but again intensity obscured by fog. Moderate-good morning flight overhead at dawn, with lots of new birds around. Hot and calm!  Clear and calm at dusk.

73 species on the day, including the world’s most cooperative Sora and some fantastic afternoon seawatching.

Highlights:
– 1 CONNECTICUT WARBLER
– 1 Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
– 3 Dickcissels
– 1 Clay-colored Sparrow
– 10 Cory’s and 12 Great Shearwaters plus 125 large shearwater sp.
– 2 Lesser Black-backed Gulls
– 1 Eastern Kingbird
– 1 Warbling Vireo
– 1 Sora
– 3 Minke Whales
wyeth-house-9-21
brth-9-21
Brown Thrasher on the Trailing Yew lawn
caterpillar-9-21
Sphinx moth caterpillar with parasitic wasp pupae
merl-perched-9-21
Merlins were all around
rubl-9-21
I’m not sure of this Rusty Blackbird left this particular group of yards for the rest of the week!
rubl2-9-21
whitehead-client-9-21whitehead-9-21
Afternoon seawatching from Whitehead.
sora-9-21
Ending the afternoon with a Sora at the Ice “pond,”
blja-9-21

9/22:
– AM: 59F, clear, very light NW. Light-moderate migration overnight on light SW to West to NW. Lots of birds overhead at sunrise (mostly Blackpoll, Yellow-rumped, and Palm Warblers), but less landing than expected as many birds kept going to the mainland. Relatively hot once again, with light and variable breeze. Clear and light South by dusk.

Highlights:
– 1 Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
– 1 Yellow-throated Vireo
– 1 Olive-sided Flycatcher
– 2 Dickcissels
– 1 American Golden-Plover
– 1 Clay-colored Sparrow
– 1 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
– 1 Carolina Wren

amre-9-22
American Redstart
baor-9-22
Baltimore Oriole
fuzzy-caterpillar-9-22
Unidentified caterpillar- some sort of tussock moth?
view-of-harbor-9-22_edited-1
harbor2-9-22

9/23:
– AM: 65F, cloudy, lt-mod SW. Little to no visible migration overnight on lt-mod SW and rain approaching from north with dropping cold front. Drizzle and some light rain ending by mid-morning. Overcast but warm on light west winds. Increasing north by dusk.

A slow day of birding on Monhegan is better than a good day of birding most anywhere else with NINE new species for the week today.

Highlights:
– 1 Black-billed Cuckoo
– 2 Dickcissels
– 2 Cory’s Shearwaters
– 1 White-crowned Sparrow (FOF)
– pair of Pine Warblers were our 18th species of warbler on the week (a little low).
clients-at-lighthouse-9-23cloud-9-23
Here comes the front!
dick-9-23
Dickcissel
lobsters-9-23
Special delivery!
lobster-chef-9-23

9/24:
– 50F, mostly clear, light N. Huge flight overnight on radar on diminishing N, but very little overhead at dawn. Although new birds had definitely arrived, it was not the huge flight that was hoped for. Apparently, there were more birds arriving on the south end of the island today (we always started on the west-north-west side) as reorienting migrants were returning to the island, or likely departing from the island’s north end. Diminishing N wind became light and variable before NW began to increase in the late morning, producing a good hawk flight.

With the hopes a big flight dashed by the lack of a westerly wind component by morning, we had a very casual and relaxed pace for our last day with some hawk watching taking precedence. Quite a few new birds were around, including several new species for out week’s list: Northern Harrier, American Pipit, and a single Semipalmated Plover. Cape May Warblers were particularly conspicuous today (at least 5), and as always it is painful to say goodbye. Good thing I’ll be back next weekend with the store’s annual weekend!

Highlights:
– 2 American Pipits (FOF)
– 1 Dickcissel

Ferry back to Boothbay Harbor:
– 1 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (about half way, heading towards the mainland)
– 2 White-winged Scoters

cmwa-9-24
Cape May Warblers were conspicuous the last few days
departing_monhegan9-24_edited-1
group_on_ferry9-24_edited-1
arriving_boothbay9-24_edited-1
Boothbay Arrival

And now I’m off this afternoon for for three more days!
group_at_brewery9-22_edited-1